Tight end has become one of the most explosive, yet still mostly predictable fantasy positions. Generally, they can be separated into two groups: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten…and the rest.
Or maybe I was generous there, and we can knock that list of elite tight ends down to just three, two of which have pretty unoriginal nicknames (they’re really just shortened last names): Gronk, Graham, and Gonzo. In any competitive standard league, getting either of the first two will usually cost you an early second-round pick at best, and often a late first rounder, while Gonzalez doesn’t fall far behind. Those three were the only tight ends to score over 130 fantasy points in 2012, which is made even more incredible when you remember the time Gronkowski missed due to injury (five games).
I’ll get to the matter at hand in a minute here and dig into the short list of relevant fantasy tight end rookies who found homes during the draft, but what follows is important to explain why the pickings on said list are slim.
After the first tier of players at the position is owned (those first five names again), it’s reasonable to stream tight ends and pick up a new one nearly every week, much the same as you commonly do with kickers and defenses. It needs to be a carefully researched and calculated move which rests with the defensive matchup, but it can easily be done. As Fake Football’s C.D. Carter noted earlier this offseason, 47 tight ends ranked among the top 12 in their position during the 2012 regular season during a week at least once. Seriously, 47.
That’s why it’s seldom a rookie tight end is worthy of being drafted, especially this year.
Let’s consider the 2010 draft, which seems like an appropriate place to start because it’s relatively recent, and more importantly, it produced three of the Elite Five. Gronkowski was the Patriots’ second-round pick, and he finished his rookie season with 546 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. As he always has been, he was the exception that year with 114.6 fantasy points, and to a lesser extent, teammate Aaron Hernandez was too with 86.3 points. Meanwhile, Jimmy Graham was the furthest away from what he would eventually become, with 356 yards and five touchdowns (47.8 points), and Jermaine Gresham rolled along with a very average 71.1.
We saw much of the same with Kyle Rudolph in 2011 when Minnesota made him that draft’s top tight end (42.9 points), and a year ago that title went to Coby Fleener, who finished with 40.1 points while in a tandem with Dwayne Allen (70.1 points).
You’re getting where this is headed by now. With the growth of dual tight end formations, rookies at the position have recently produced average numbers, or worse, numbers which are at or below replacement level. What sucks this year is that arguably the only tight end worth investing a draft pick in will likely be connected with one of those blasted tandem things.
Tyler Eifert was the only tight end selected in the first round when the Bengals took him with their 21st overall pick, and for a good reason. That reason would be his 1,840 receiving yards over three seasons at Notre Dame, which were accumulated through his ability to excel from the slot with ease, and his mad hops.
But in Cincinnati he’ll be flanked by Gresham, who had a career high 737 receiving yards last year. While Gresham may lead, together this could become what we saw with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey in Carolina a few years ago: both players cancelling each other out, leading to wildly inconsistent production.
Congestion at the position could be a recurring theme as we work down the list of tight ends just drafted. Zach Ertz is currently mired in a Philadelphia mess which Brent Celek, James Casey, and even Clay Harbor. Travis Kelce was the first pick in the third round, but he’ll fight for touches with Tony Moeaki and Anthony Fasano. Eventually he’ll win that fight, but he’ll likely be limited at first. Gavin Escobar has high upside too, but how much is left for him in Dallas after Jason Witten receives somewhere in the vicinity of 150 targets? (he had 148 last year).
But there are exceptions. Vance McDonald could be useful in a deep flex role alongside Vernon Davis, just as Delanie Walker was last year. Davis’ targets were highly scattered once Colin Kaepernick took over, and Walker had three games with 50 or more yards. That’s something far less than spectacular, but still notable given how large Davis’ shadow is, or at least how large it should be.
Jordan Reed in Washington could be another exception, but here again you’re hoping he’s able to emerge and play the Hernandez, while Fred Davis is Gronkowski, or thereabouts. And really, that’s the same hope you’re going forward with by using even a late-round flier on the likes of Eifert and Ertz too, this draft’s top two tight ends. The sleeper candidate may be Nick Kasa, the Raiders’ fourth-round pick who has few obstacles ahead of him on the depth chart after the departure of Brandon Myers, and he could ascend quickly, especially if Matt Flynn matures. I still wouldn’t invest a draft pick here, but watch him early and throughout training camp.
Mostly, though, the tight ends in this class will play a secondary role, and give you secondary production. You can get that on the wire easily.